Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Cartography and catastrophe

  • Written by  Tom Hart
  • Published in Mapping
A Map Action-created chart of Paraguay being used by a helicopter search team A Map Action-created chart of Paraguay being used by a helicopter search team Map Action
05 Dec
When disaster strikes, the United Nations turns to a charity based in a tiny Buckinghamshire hamlet. Tom Hart discovers how Map Action charts disasters that range from Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the refugee crisis in the Middle East

On the outskirts of the small English hamlet of Sanderton there’s a detached suburban house from which specialists in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) are dispatched across the world to map floods, tsunamis and refugee camps in order to help governments, relief teams and aid workers operate with maximum efficiency in the field.

‘The first one we covered was the Sri Lankan tsunami,’ says volunteer Victoria White, who joined Map Action as the charity’s sixth member in 2004 and now sits on the organisation’s board of trustees. ‘We ended up on the pavement with all our kit, and then we were the first people into the government’s Centre for National Operations. That’s where we made our name.’

White had recently finished a course in GIS at City University when she joined the team, which draws on mapping professionals working in fields as diverse as the oil industry and shipping. In total, the organisation has 73 volunteers with 23 deployable to disaster zones. Eight staff members support the volunteers, and half of those are also available for deployment.

‘Work for the volunteers starts at the most elementary level,’ says Liz Hughes, chief executive at Map Action. ‘Before mapping casualties or damage to crucial infrastructure, there’s a need to agree common terms. In the beginning there is the need for basic administration maps so everybody knows they are speaking about the same village. You might think the whole world has been mapped, but this is about making sure everyone involved has the same picture.’

‘It can be a very dynamic picture,’ says Chloe Browitt, who heads up funding and communications for the charity. ‘If you’re looking at Africa, there are nomadic people, changes over time and sometimes communities are called by different names. Sometimes they’re called by the tribal leader’s name, other times they’re called something different. It’s mainly about getting all the information together, triangulating and getting it right.’

Browitt points to Map Action’s deployment during this year’s floods in Serbia as an example of this. Volunteers had to be careful to note boundaries and territorial markers around Kosovo in ways that were sensitive to different political viewpoints, she says.

Philippines map WEBTyphoon Haiyan struck a devastating blow to the Philippines in November 2013. Tracking the typhoon’s path was the first stage for Map Action’s deployment team


‘As soon as we are called, we have the whole team tasked to do a data scramble,’ says Hughes. ‘That means searching for data on the country where the disaster happened. When we don’t have very good data we try to tell the story as much as we can.’

At Map Action’s headquarters the ground floor contains an impressive logistics operation that provides volunteers with what amounts to a portable office and survival kit rolled into a sturdy metal trunk and backpack. Mike Sims, deployment coordinator, keeps the kit up to date. A former military man with an easy manner and Zen-like attention to detail, Sims makes sure the equipment is charged, corralled and ready for action amid the pleasant aroma of pipe tobacco. Volunteers pick up the kit on the way to the airport. Each deployment sends two volunteers to carry out the mapping, usually from a United Nations (UN) operations centre. Volunteers rotate through the deployment over two-week periods. Map Action’s role isn’t to wander round the disaster zone; relief workers in the disaster’s maw send information back to the cartographers.

‘The first map is the 3W map: Who, What, and Where. This is so people understand the coordination,’ says Browitt. ‘Often the maps are not necessarily beautiful, but they are useful. These are not perfect maps. Someone described them as a bit ugly, but what we are aiming to do is make it as simple to understand as possible. It’s a way to get it out the door so people can use it as quickly as possible.’

Map Action has standard procedures which include a quality check with volunteers back in the UK. Nothing goes out without additional scrutiny, adds Hughes.

Philippines family WEBSurvivors of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, a major deployment for Map Action


On 7 November 2013, Typhoon Haiyan made landfall on the Philippines. By the time it was over, it would kill 6,340 people, injure more than 28,000, and leave another 1,061 missing. In financial terms, the total cost of damages caused by the typhoon topped $2.02billion.

‘It was a call on the Tuesday saying, “Can you go out now?” I had a conference at work on the Thursday and Friday where I was giving a keynote speech,’ says White who works for Exprodat, an oil and gas GIS company, when she isn’t volunteering for Map Action. ‘I said I could go, and told work they were going to have to find another speaker.’ Map Action had already sent two volunteers who were based in Manila and White flew out to join them on the Thursday morning. ‘We went straight down to Tacloban, which meant we had three hours sleep,’ she continues. The hurricane made landfall – with Tacloban taking the brunt – as White drove from the airport to the operations centre. What she saw was as bad as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

‘For me it was rather strange,’ says Kirsty Ferris, who was given leave of absence from her day job as a technical service manager at a geophysics company to volunteer in the Philippines. ‘We deployed before the typhoon had been through. We arrived on one of the last flights out of Manila. We grabbed some sleep as we knew it was all going to kick off the next day. The first two weeks were a bit surreal.’

Ferris and the rest of the team were in an air conditioned multi-storey office complex working as part of the UN teams. ‘It was full-on, day-to-day job,’ she says. ‘We were with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) tasking us with maps that they wanted us to make, generally starting with an overview of where the typhoon was and where they expected the affected populations to be.’

Understanding the typhoon’s track and the associated storm surge was vital for the relief effort. It took the volunteers a few days to get the actual track mapped, which then highlighted the areas that were most likely to be affected. After the typhoon made landfall, the volunteers dealt with diverse requests for information about affected schools, populations, deaths and injuries.

Philippines map2 WEBLater maps produced by Map Action during Typhoon Haiyan focused on transport infrastructure – particularly operational airports – in the archipelago


‘There is a limited usefulness in knowing who is doing what and where without knowing the level of unmet need in an area,’ says Hughes. ‘So what we tried to do is capture the numbers of people we were trying to assist. The next step was assessing the numbers in need.’

These numbers change quickly in a fast-moving situation like Haiyan. Hughes’ solution in the Philippines was to automate Map Action’s approach with the support of OCHA. ‘Twice a week we were able to produce 3W maps in every sector and every district,’ she says. ‘It gave us a picture of the evolution of the emergency.’

The initial maps produced after the typhoon struck provided a high-level overview. ‘The first maps answer the urgent questions,’ explains White. ‘Where’s the government? Where’s the mayor’s office? In the Philippines it was a question of looking at all the barangays, which are sort of the subdivisions of postcode sectors or districts in English.’ Of course, each incident and area had its own priorities. ‘Everybody wanted a petrol station map in Tacloban because nobody could get hold of petrol,’ says Ferris.

On a day-to-day basis, enquiries about transport were the most popular information requests. The volunteers produced large- and small-scale mapping with information on where roads were impassable.

‘People wanted to know where bridges were down and where it was inaccessible, or where places had been destroyed,’ says Ferris. ‘This information is really of the moment because a bridge could have been repaired in the previous couple of hours.’ For an island nation like the Philippines, knowing which airports were operational was particularly important, and airport status was reflected in the maps.

Map Action received detailed information from the Philippine government and volunteers spent a lot of time working the data into a usable format. ‘In the first two weeks the government distributed updates every day in a scanned PDF format,’ describes Ferris. ‘Someone else was providing that information in Excel in a horrible no-use-to-anyone format. So the challenges in the first eight to ten days were getting an automated process so as soon as we got the information in the morning it could be put on the map straightaway.’

The conditions also meant that satellite imagery arrived in fits and starts. ‘Every day there would be updated information on where the power was down and where it had been returned to operation,’ Ferris says.

2014 WEBMap Action’s volunteers typically work from an office block, although sometimes conditions are more basic


While the team is slowly getting used to dealing with natural disasters like Haiyan, man-made disasters are a new challenge for Map Action. This issue has come to prominence for disaster mapping in the last three to four years, according to White. In recent deployments, the organisation has assisted during the refugee crisis in Iraq and Syria as well as overspill areas in neighbouring countries. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimates that there are over three million refugees spread out across the region.

These types of environment call for skills and approaches unlike those used during natural disasters. Map Action’s deployment was less a mapping project and more about getting data into a database, as well as providing information, graphs and other media products for reports.

‘I was very removed over there. It was highly political and complex,’ says Ferris. ‘We were quite close to the Syrian border. We were there when one of the trucks coming through was blown up, so there was heightened security. We were a good 30 miles from the border, but we were going to the border towns to have meetings every two or three days. When they stopped the meetings in the local town we moved away. Even though we were quite displaced, the reality of the conflict was there.’

Along with long-term events, Map Action is working on preparation and prevention. ‘We’ve worked on disaster preparation in South Africa and we are working in Nepal as there’s a landslide risk there,’ says White.

Web mapping using mobile phones is growing in importance for disaster maps, but bandwidth and access can be a problem in a disaster zone. ‘The great advantage with the web is that it is possible to get a common operational picture,’ says White. ‘There is crisis mapping where people map without being on the ground and we are working with organisations to consolidate that information.’

So while for the moment Map Action’s work starts from a sleepy English hamlet, future disaster maps could be worked on by volunteers in any village, town or city in the world.

This story was published in the November 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine

Related items

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PLACES...


A new, double-sided world map projection seeks to minimise the…


 Water scarcity is predicted to rise – two experts share…


New collaborative research from the University of Oxford and the…


Conceived during the late 1800s, Letchworth Garden City was the…


Multiple failed attempts to build on a patch of land…


New 'deep learning' technology is helping to identify trees in…


The land around the Kinabatangan River in the state of…


Highlights from the column that keeps you connected with the…


At the end of a perplexing and thought-provoking year, we…


The city of Mosul is slowly putting itself back together…


The story of a unique Italo-Slovenian community that came to…


Bisecting Georgia's northwestern region, the Enguri River has come to…


A study in Northern Minnesota is experimentally heating the air…


Some of the quirkiest geopolitical oddities are  Europe’s semi-independent microstates (SIMs). Vitali…


Ninety years after depopulation, the Scottish islands of St Kilda…


Not all passports are created equal


The impacts of deforestation are wide ranging. But while some…


Community trekking is the latest development to emerge from the…


Scientists are using sophisticated data modelling to predict how cities…